Martin Semm could hardly be any happier. You can tell by looking at him that today is a special day, a day of celebration. He got up especially early and was too fired up to have breakfast. Now he stands here, the picture of excitement. His heart is pumping and he can feel the adrenaline, he explains animatedly.
The 47-year-old entrepreneur is about to take his extraordinary car, recently acquired from a British classic car enthusiast, on its first longer journey. The term car doesn’t quite do it justice: the vehicle, its soft top already down, is a true legend – and not just for Martin Semm. A style icon without equal that has outlived trend after trend, with a price tag to match (it is valued in the seven-figure range). A work of art on four wheels. It is the 300 SL Roadster.
And this one in particular, built in 1957 and featuring light green metallic paintwork, dark green leather, a soft top, and chassis number 00.7500582 (see the registration card on the right), is especially unique. Because its very first owner was none other than Clark Gable, Oscar winner, ladies’ man, and one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic characters, famed for his quizzical expression with one eyebrow up and one down, and for his rough-and-ready charm. He achieved world fame primarily through his roles as Rhett Butler in the classic ‘Gone with the Wind’ and as brash reporter Peter Warne in ‘It Happened One Night’, a performance that won him an Oscar in 1934. Gable regularly acted alongside Marilyn Monroe, and was known as a big car enthusiast. A highly distinctive world star with an unmistakable air of glamour, Gable was a perfect match for the 300 SL. Perhaps these shared traits were his reason for buying one.
According to the weather forecast, today will be quite mild. Around 20 degrees Celsius. With sunny spells, cloudy patches and a 20 per cent chance of rain. “Clark Gable used to drive this Roadster, now I drive it. What a feeling! Indescribable!” sighs Martin Semm with a faraway expression. He starts the engine and lets it run for two minutes to warm up, then tenderly puts the car into first gear.
Equipped with a powerful three-litre engine, it quickly picks up speed. “The sound, the smell, the way it drives, everything about this car is fantastic,” exclaims Semm after just a couple of kilometres. “I could jump for joy.”
This is his maiden voyage in the lovingly restored Roadster, a vehicle boasting 215 hp and a top speed of 250 km/h. But this isn’t just any road trip to him. It is his own personal road movie starring the 1950s super sports car. An adventure that will see him navigate the foothills of the Bavarian Alps between Starnberg and Bad Tölz, known for their hilly terrain, exhilarating serpentine bends and well-constructed roads. The emptier stretches in particular are ideal for putting a car like his to the test.
Martin Semm invited us to accompany him for his road movie. And we happily obliged! It is the 300 SL Roadster’s 60th birthday, after all.
Three years before the launch of the open-top, a fixed-roof coupé with gull-winged doors – the legendary 300 SL “Gullwing” – hit the roads, instantly becoming a coveted sports car. Its origins had something to do with this success – after all, it was a later version of a car of the same name that, in 1952, enjoyed spectacular double victories at both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico. An innovative fuel injection system made the series production version of the 300 SL even more powerful than the successful race car, boasting speeds of up to 250 km/h and thus the fastest series car of its time.
From 1954 to 1957 Mercedes-Benz produced 1,400 gull-winged Coupés (29 as super sporty aluminium versions). Within no time, the super light (for which the SL in its name stands) sports car had conquered the world’s roads. Its price tag back then: around 30,000 D-marks. As much as a house. The first prototype of this open-top Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster was completed in 1955. It was first shown to the public in March of 1957 at the Geneva Motor Show. Production of this much-anticipated successor to the Gullwing then began in May of 1957. By 1963, 1,858 open-top 300 SLs had been built.
Clark Gable owned both a Roadster and a Gullwing, with many more of the glitterati falling for the luxurious charm of the 300 SL. Among them were actors Romy Schneider, Tony Curtis and Horst Buchholz, playboys Gunter Sachs and Porfirio Rubirosa, Mercedes-Benz racing legend Rudolf Caracciola, and also countless politicians, industry bosses, sheikhs, barons and kings.
But now back to Upper Bavaria. This is not Martin Semm’s first drive in a 300 SL. The sporty Hesse native, like moustachioed film star Clark Gable, is a lover of style, speed, and beautiful automobiles. His favourite car of them all: the 300 SL. He, too, owns both the Roadster and a Gullwing. And while he also loves to drive these cars, he restricts himself to leisurely jaunts totalling no more than 1,500 to 2,000 kilometres per year.
This particular outing will take him from Lake Starnberg towards the Alps. Passers-by stop, mouths agape, to take photographs. Whenever he gets out, people ask him about the car’s year of construction and engine performance. He happily takes the time to answer their questions. It is, after all, part and parcel of having a car like this.
Not that he needs the latter today, knowing the Upper Bavarian countryside like the back of his hand. Martin Semm is driving one of the most fascinating cars of all time, competing in his very own Carrera Bavaria. It’s an intensely emotional experience for him and his enjoyment is palpable. Sitting behind the steering wheel, he is living his dream, one for which he has worked extremely hard and sacrificed personal time. “I somehow feel that Gable’s spirit is driving with me,” he tells us as we tuck into a meal of pretzels, sausage, cheese and coffee.
The view from here stretches out across the crystal-clear Riegsee lake to the imposing mountains to the south. “Historic photos and scenes from old Clark Gable films keep running through my mind. This outing really is magical for me.” Asked how he would rank it on a corresponding emotional scale, he responds, “It would be right at the top of course: XXXL!”
And whenever he puts his foot down, joyfully pushing the 1,350-kilogram car to the edge of the speed limit and causing the straight-six engine under its bonnet to let out its characteristic roar, his eyes seem to take on Gable’s trademark twinkle.
“It’s only when you actually drive the car that you can appreciate its many qualities,” Semm explains. “At 3,000 revs, the engine sounds deep and rich, but go above and you’d think you’ve got a monster under the bonnet. And at full speed, the car’s guttural growl makes it feel like a force of nature.”
Semm enjoys taking his most precious car out for a spin and allowing others to glimpse back into the golden age of the fifties.
People regularly greet him with smiling faces or give him the thumbs up as he drives past. Some of them just stand there with their mouths agape, and this despite not knowing that an Oscar winner was the car’s very first owner.
The road movie nears its end. Dark clouds begin to move down from the mountains. Martin Semm stops to close the soft top and then calmly drives on. This day spent in the Clark Gable Roadster, with himself in a starring role, is one he will never forget.
Let’s hope it’s not compromised by any hail showers. Only some light rain, thankfully. He parks the car in the safety of the dry garage and gives it a friendly tap on the tail. All is well with the world.